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Campus News

Warren Wilson College and the Environmental Leadership Center’s INSULATE Establishes Itself in Western North Carolina

by Nathan Gower, staff writer

Since its inception in August of 2008, the Environmental Leadership Center’s (ELC) INSULATE has quietly made a reputation for itself both on campus and in the community at large. The program, overseen by the ELC’s Director of Research and Community Outreach, Phillip Gibson, is in its fifth year.

The program originated in 2006 when student-led conversations about climate change captivated the college.

According to Gibson, “there was a national movement happening on campuses and our students were heavily engaged.” These students, “moved the college in the direction of being even more interested in carbon emission reduction and its relationship to climate change.”

A community meeting had been initiated and led primarily by students Nina Otter, Brittany Cusworth, Nathan Ballantine and Nicky Monroe, all of whom would play a role in what would come to be known as INSULATE.

In the meeting, students “were asking what the college is doing well, and what the college could be doing better,” on issues surrounding climate change, Gibson recalled.

Ballantine suggested that Warren Wilson College begin insulating and weatherizing homes in Swannanoa.

Shortly thereafter local politics came into the picture. In 2005 the City of Asheville signed onto the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. Within a year of signing that agreement, the City of Asheville and Warren Wilson College signed one of the first agreements nationwide between a college or university and a city regarding climate change.

Around the same time, Sandy Pfeiffer became the first president of a private college or university in North Carolina to sign the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment.

“A couple of weeks later,” Gibson noted, “I was asked by Margo Flood and Sandy Pffeifer what we could be doing with the city of Asheville to improve carbon emission reduction.”

Gibson championed Ballantine’s weatherization idea.

In August of 2008, following these signed agreements, Gibson hired then-recent graduate Brittany Cusworth as a temporary staff member of the ELC to help develop the program. Together, Gibson and Cusworth looked into potential partners in the area to better utilize resources. One of these partners was Community Action Opportunities.

A partnership was signed with Director of the Economic Development Department for Community Action Opportunities (CAO) Ben Watts. Their agreement was to allocate a percentage of the 350 homes CAO receives funding for to INSULATE. CAO however, can only give INSULATE so many homes per the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act. Essentially, CAO receives federal funds that are then to be distributed towards job training primarily as an employment initiative in the area. Only so much money can be used towards volunteer efforts, which INSULATE falls under. Thus, only a handful of homes, fifteen for this academic year, can be undertaken by INSULATE.

CAO serves the counties of Henderson, Buncombe, Translyvania and Madison, which have a combined land mass of 1868 square miles and a total population of approximately 385,000. To put that into perspective, the four counties combined are over 600 square miles larger than the state of Rhode Island.

This is something Gibson was careful to stress not to overlook. “If you spread that 350 over four counties and then you look at how many homes they would be able to get to over, say, ten years, it’s clearly not what is the need. So we could venture to guess people will die before they ever get any help.”

“In Buncombe County alone, CAO estimates there are over 60,000 families in need of assistance based solely on their economic standing,” Gibson said. Criteria determining need by CAO is essentially people who are no more than 200 percent above the poverty level. In grounded terms, that is “an individual who probably makes around $10-12,000 a year” or “a family of four that probably makes somewhere in the thirty-thousands,” according to Gibson.

While the greater need is clearly not being met, that does not take away from what INSULATE has already accomplished.

Gibson said “It is estimated we’re reducing carbon emissions of homes we work on by two tons per year,” and “economic costs by a third.” CAO gathers efficiency data a year prior to and a year after the weatherization of a home.

The impact isn’t solely in the community either. INSULATE’s sole work crew member, Lindsay Land, has witnessed INSULATE’s impact in the lives of Warren Wilson students, including her own.

“You’re kind of unaware of what the community is like because you’re usually at Warren Wilson, in Asheville, or in Black Mountain. We’re not at peoples homes in the area, so it was really eye opening to see what kinds of homes are here, what kind of people are here,” Land said.

Land was involved with INSULATE through several class-related trips. Positive experiences here led to her contacting INSULATE about involvement in future trips. Her interest in INSULATE reached a turning point when she and INSULATE took a trip to Atlanta.

“We worked with a Presbybetrian church down there who were having a service day,” Land recalled. “It was really cool working with a group of probably upper middle class people living in a richer suburb of Atlanta going to a very poverty-stricken area of their own city. That was pretty powerful, to see people other than students who are interested in service.”

Land thinks “people don’t think about it as more than just community service, more than weatherization, [but] it’s cultural immersion.You’re seeing a different class of people. It isn’t just a required service project, it is an experience.”

Land’s typical work week sees much of INSULATE’s responsibility shifted to her.

“Over the summer Phillip got all the professors and work crew supervisors’ names who wanted to be involved in INSULATE this year and they worked out dates,” the sophomore said. Land, who is in her first year on the crew, said “The CAO and Asheville Home Builders Association then pick out houses for us.”

In the weeks leading up to an INSULATE trip, Land receives the address and some brief information about the homeowner the Monday before the trip. She uses a class roster to fill out meal and vehicle requests. On the Friday before a trip, Land goes “to a class and give a safety discussion, tell them what to wear, tell them where we’re meeting, etc.” On the day of get our supplies, lunch, and pile everyone in the car.

Representatives from Ohio University, Furman University, and the University of Vermony have all been to INSULATE training and have created similar programs for their respective communities.

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